Being well in the swell
Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.
Surfing was, and still is, my favourite way to express myself in the world, and to make sense of my place in it. All through history the sea has held a place of power in our collective imagination. We might fear it, but we’ve always been drawn to it, or when away from it, left with a feeling of longing. Environmentalist Rachel Carson argued in 1950 in her stunning account of our relationship with the ocean, The Sea Around Us, that we are all tied to our origins in the ancient sea. I grew up in a family of surfers on the west coast of Ireland where surfing was a celebrated part of life. I’ve felt it’s power to hold us together as a family through all kinds of ups and downs, and personally how it has held and healed me at various stages of my life.
Studying the links between the ocean and human health, it came as little surprise to find that there is a surge in research on the benefits of nature connection, especially ‘blue space’ – the sea and other water environments – on our health and wellbeing. Surfing is emerging as one of the most rapidly growing ‘blue care’ activities, an alternative and complimentary therapeutic intervention that taps into the power of the sea and surf to heal. There are Surf Therapy organisations on every continent in the world offering programmes for a diversity of vulnerable and minority groups.
This is crucial at a time when we are in the midst of a global health crisis with medicalized interventions and the associated high rates of prescription drug use, such as anti-depressants to treat depression, stress, anxiety and mood-related disorders on the rise, especially for children. This is at a time when children are spending less time than ever before outdoors and are suffering from what Richard Louv calls, Nature Deficit Disorder.
Scientific studies are catching up with what I’ve intuitively known and felt my whole life, the power of the sea to heal. The findings in these studies show how surf therapy involves active engagement and immersion in the sea that can create a sense of respite from everyday and acquired anxieties and disabilities and promote mental health outcomes. The health benefits of surf therapy are linked to the fluid and dynamic nature of surfing and the sea. The multi-sensory nature of surfing is linked with improved health, activating all our sensory systems at a cellular level and enhancing ‘neuroplasticity’ – helping the brain’s ability to become more agile and adaptive. The added challenge and unpredictability associated with surfing also helps to build resilience helping us better cope with stress. Learning to surf in a group context can also enhance a sense of belonging and identity through shared experiences in the surf. For amputees and those with spinal chord injuries, surfing can help dramatically reduce dependency on opioid medication and improve balance and mobility. Those with Cystic Fibrosis found they could breathe more easily after surfing, the saltwater linked with fewer pulmonary flare-ups.
Surfing is an embodied way of interacting and experiencing the natural world, something we are growing increasingly separated from. From a research perspective, the challenge is how to measure or capture health and wellbeing outcomes in such a complex, fluid, and dynamic environment like the surf so we can better communicate the benefits to health professionals and policy makers. To understand in greater depth, the richness of these experiences of immersion in the sea that take us away from our worries on land, we also need more creative and participatory methods of evaluation.
As part of my research, I worked with a surf therapy non-profit in Ireland, Liquid Therapy, and a group of young surfers with Autism to better understand their experiences of surfing. Using a technique called Body Mapping, we explored their feelings and emotional wellbeing. Body Mapping engages the senses and draws on similar methods used in art and dance therapy as well as mindfulness-based practice. It encourages active and playful participation in the research with the aid of objects, symbols, colors and sensations. It also incorporates reflection and storytelling that provides the means to creatively explore the relationships between personal, social and natural worlds.
Using a creative and embodied approach like Body Mapping created a space for different forms of expression, supporting wider forms of engagement and communication that didn’t rely solely on traditional forms (written/verbal) that could exclude or alienate. The young surfers’ accounts of their wellbeing before and after surfing, expressed in various ways through Body Mapping exercises, revealed shifts in their sense of identity, self-awareness and connection to nature, improving confidence, interpersonal and communication skills for those with low self-esteem.
Surf Therapy provides a lens to see, understand and experience the sea as healing, restorative and health-enabling. It offers huge potential for novel health care interventions and health promotion, especially at a time of heightened psychological distress globally, that will continue long after the coronavirus pandemic is over. To tap into and realise this tremendous potential of surf therapy in a fair, just and inclusive way we need to restore the ocean as a safe and healthy space for all.
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